Government IT 'Fundamentally Flawed,' Researchers Say

Fixing how federal agencies purchase and manage IT will take top leadership and new approaches, say the authors of a new report.
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The federal government spends more than $80 billion annually on information technology, while state and local governments spend an additional $100 billion. Yet only about 6% of large federal IT programs succeed, according to David Wyld, professor of management at Southeastern Louisiana University and coauthor of a new report that examines what's wrong with government IT and how to fix it.

Throughout the report -- which is based on interviews with experts within and outside the government -- Wyld and coauthor Raj Sharma, CEO of Censeo Consulting Group, discuss how federal agencies purchase and manage IT, and why many programs fail. "This is not about IT procurement, but more about the way we solve big problems. Right now, the way we run IT programs is fundamentally flawed. We've erected enormous barriers to entry, limiting innovation and competition," Sharma told InformationWeek Government.

The authors argue that there are five main factors to blame for what's wrong with government IT:

  • IT programs often fail when there is no agreement on what problem needs to be solved or what success looks like.
  • Weak leadership and governance are to blame, especially since most senior leaders are not around long enough to see projects through from beginning to end.
  • The "risk-adverse mindset" agencies have toward compliance and fear of failure can cause programs to be delayed months or even years because of many reviews and approvals.

[For more on federal IT problems, see GAO Spotlights 190 Troubled IT Projects.]

  • Various requirements or excessive terms and conditions cause companies not to compete.
  • Agencies are notorious for using very cumbersome and cautious procurement processes that create closed markets and affect innovation.

When asked what agencies are doing wrong, Wyld said in an interview with InformationWeek Government, "The problem is that when you are talking about federal IT programs, you are dealing with projects that literally span a decade or more, cost billions -- even tens of billions of dollars -- and are consistently over budget, behind schedule, and not making things better. In fact, oftentimes agencies will find that they are worse off than when they started a big IT-focused project, and that's what's really disturbing about all of this."

While solving those problems will require patience, agencies don't have to wait years for major reform legislation, the report argues. "I do think that the situation can be turned around, but it will take top leadership actions and radically different approaches," Wyld said. "Few agencies have piloted different ways of doing things, such as breaking down huge projects into smaller, more targeted and manageable chunks and aligning everyone to project success. This is particularly true when it comes to getting procurement and IT to really work together."

The report makes several recommendations for fixing government IT. Examples include establishing clear lines of authority and accountability; using a "needs and outcomes" statement to set project goals instead of lengthy request for proposals (RFPs); engaging the market early; developing a return on investment-focused program strategy; and taking smart risks. Another recommendation is reducing requirements to allow for more meaningful competition.

The report also points out that it's not just an IT issue. Improving IT project success in government can go a long way toward restoring the public's faith in government, said Wyld. Less wasteful IT spending means those funds -- whether in the hands of the government or taxpayers -- can be put to better use.

New standards, new security, new architectures. The Cloud First stars are finally aligning for government IT. Read the Cloud Hits Inflection Point issue of InformationWeek Government Tech Digest today.

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